I was the kind of child who played Dungeons and Dragons alone. In my bedroom, by myself, on long summer afternoons, I sat cross-legged on the floor surrounded by sheets of scrap-paper and dice — both the traditional six-sided dice and the more mathematically complex icosahedral things. I would play as four or five different D&D characters at once, plus the Dungeon Master.
It wasn’t that I didn’t have other friends to play with. I did. I tried. I played a few games with the kids on the block, but I was always disappointed. Whereas I enjoyed their company in other contexts (TV-watching, baseball-playing, bike-riding), at D&D I found them lacking. They didn’t have the patience for a full game, and they were often distracted by a nearby Nintendo, and they were embarrassed about what playing D&D meant for their schoolyard reputations (words like “nerd” and “dweeb” were effective tools of social control). Worst of all, they didn’t take it seriously
enough. They could not immerse themselves the way I immersed myself, and often I found myself feeling frustrated, sitting around a card table with these other kids and their oscillating attention spans and bedtimes.
I rolled and watched the slow-motion fight unfolding on the scrap paper before me, abstract quantities that began to take on a life inside my head.
So I tried playing with my sisters. I have two younger sisters, and one of the perks of being an older brother is coercing your siblings to obey your will. I sat them down, told them what we’d be doing, and began reading from my Dungeon Master script: “There’s a troll blocking your way to the treasure,” I said. “Do you want to attack?”
They looked at me with a combination of bafflement and disdain.
“Yes,” I said, “you want to attack.”
I rolled six dice and counted the result and recorded it in my notebook and then rolled five more dice and counted that result and then rolled five dice again and then four and then two and each time carefully recorded the results and then finally announced: “You hit him!”
And I explained how the first roll was an agility test to see if the troll was quick enough to counter-attack, followed by a perception roll to see if my sisters could spot the weakness in the troll’s armor, followed by a skill roll to see if they could successfully pierce said weakness, followed by a roll on the troll’s defense rating to see if it could parry or block their strikes, and lastly a strength roll to see how damaged the troll would be.
“Now it’s the troll’s turn!” I said.
I gathered the dice and started rolling and recording the results and my sisters quietly stood up and abandoned me. I rolled and watched the slow-motion fight unfolding on the scrap paper before me, abstract quantities that began to take on a life inside my head. When an attack roll was a 36 and the troll’s defense roll was a tiny 17, I thought I could actually see how pathetic and slow and useless the troll’s movements were, how untrained and sloppy and barbaric compared to my highly disciplined and really rather extraordinary 36. I saw all this in my mind, and when the fight was finally over I could read back through all my numbers and watch the whole thing again, like a court reporter dictating from his mysterious glyphs.
And because neither my friends nor my sisters found this as beautiful as I did, I ended up playing all my D&D alone.
But of course D&D is not a game designed for solo play, and thus there are certain inherent structural issues that make playing solo really difficult and perplexing. Primarily, D&D requires a division between the players and the Dungeon Master. Because the Dungeon Master should have access to secrets the players themselves do not have access to — the DM is aware of the lurking hidden enemies and secret traps that the players cannot see. So the problem with playing both the Dungeon Master and
the players was that I was aware of the quest’s various plot-twists but had to pretend that the players I controlled were not, which presented basic ontological confusion. I wasn’t quite the Dungeon Master; I was more like the Dungeon Master Master
Playing got even more complicated when I began giving big personalities to my adventurers, deciding that a certain warlock was an impulsive hothead while the group’s sorcerer was a cautious overthinker, and the two of them would naturally butt heads on the subject of, say, whether to storm the dungeon’s front gate or spend a bunch of time looking for a secret back door. Meanwhile, the barbarian (I imagined) would just roll his eyes in a kind of here-we-go-again
manner because he’d seen this argument before and had learned to stay out of the way and just let it happen until it concluded as it always did, with a dice roll that pitted the warlock’s persuasion skill against the sorcerer’s willpower.
All this before the quest even started.
So you can see why this would take a lot of time, why a patch of morning sunlight on the floor would creep from one side of the room all the way to the other while I played out an adventure that persisted until a parent finally banged on the door demanding that I go outside for once, or eat.
Looking back on it now, I think those were probably among the first stories I ever created
. They weren’t the stories that were written out for me in the D&D adventure books — rather, they were stories that happened as a sort of side effect of role playing, unscripted and unpredictable.
Academics who study this kind of thing call these stories “emergent narratives,” the impromptu and improvised stories that surface through the actions of a player playing a game. We’re all familiar with these stories — we see them on SportsCenter
all the time. Sports are probably the most ubiquitous sources of emergent narrative, because while sports are not in themselves stories, they enable enough storytelling to fill whole cable channels. In the Rio Olympics in August, for example, Nathan Adrian, the anchor for the American relay swim team, said that during a race he has to “get a feel for what’s going on, what the story is that’s unfolding.”
A relay race, of course, doesn’t have a prescribed story, but a story emerges from the race nonetheless.
These were the kinds of stories I enjoyed most while playing Dungeons and Dragons alone: those off-script stories that emerged while playing. They seemed, to me, like miracles. Because I didn’t know where they came from — they weren’t described in the adventure book, and they weren’t in my brain when I started playing. Rather, they just appeared, spontaneously.
What I couldn’t have known at the time was that this was pretty good training for writing a novel.
When I began writing The Nix
in 2004, I did not have an outline, I did not have a plot, and I certainly didn’t have any idea where the story was headed. But I did have a world — Chicago in 1968, when the city was beset by riots and protest — and I had my four adventurers: a cop, a student radical, a media guru, and a small-town girl just in from the country.
And I did with these characters exactly what I did with my D&D avatars long ago: I smashed them together to see what stories emerged.
It was like role playing without the adventure book, like D&D without the Dungeon Master.
And while this is almost certainly an inefficient way to write a book, for me there was a lot of joy in the everyday process of revelation, of coming to the notebook each day to unearth new stories. It felt like I was back in my bedroom rolling dice, surprising myself, pulling wonder from mystery.
People have asked me how I could work on a book for 10 years, and this is what I tell them: you have to make it fun, you have to make it feel like an adventure. I didn’t write simply to describe things that happened. I wrote to discover them.
÷ ÷ ÷
's short fiction has appeared in many literary journals, including The Iowa Review
, The Gettysburg Review
, and Fiction
, which awarded him its annual Fiction Prize. A native Iowan, he lives with his wife in Naples, Florida. The Nix
is his first novel.